Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything by Michael P. Foley, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything
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Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything

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by Michael P. Foley

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Did you know that the origins of Groundhog Day stem from a Catholic tradition? Or that the common pretzel was once a Lenten reward for the pious? Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday is a fascinating guide to the roots of all-things-Catholic. This smart and concise guide will introduce readers to the hidden heritage in many commonplace things that make up


Did you know that the origins of Groundhog Day stem from a Catholic tradition? Or that the common pretzel was once a Lenten reward for the pious? Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday is a fascinating guide to the roots of all-things-Catholic. This smart and concise guide will introduce readers to the hidden heritage in many commonplace things that make up contemporary life. The reader-friendly format and the illuminating entries will make this guide a perfect gift for Catholics and anyone who loves a bit of historic trivia.
Table of Contents - Foreword
• Time
• Manners & Dining Etiquette
• Food
• Drink
• Music & Theater
• Sports & Games
• Holidays & Festivities
• Flowers & Plants
• Insects, Animals, & More
• American Places
• International, National, & State Symbols
• Clothes & Other Sundry Inventions
• Education & Superstition
• Art & Science
• Law & Architecture
• Epilogue: Words, Words, Words--Catholic, Anti-Catholic, and Post-Catholic

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Why Do Catholics Eat Fish On Friday?

The Catholic Origin To Just About Everything

By Michael P. Foley

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2005 Michael P. Foley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4039-6967-5



But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law: That he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons.

—Galatians 4:4–5

One of the more distinguishing characteristics of Christianity is its notion of time—or at least of what happens in time. While classical philosophy abstracts from the spatial and the temporal in order to arrive at the eternal, and while Eastern religions, with their various doctrines on reincarnation, generally conceive of time as cyclical, Christianity is grounded in Judaism's realization that the God of eternity has definitively entered into the particularity of history. This belief crescendos in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, when, in the "fullness of time," the Word through whom all things were made became flesh (John 1:3, 14); and it anticipates the final consummation of time, when God will be all in all (I Corinthians 15:28).

The Christian stress laid on divine revelation's entry into a specific and real point of time can be seen in the care that St. Luke gives to identifying the precise historical moment in which St. John the Baptist began his preaching (Luke 3:1). And it may also be seen in more mundane areas as well, from the way we count our years to the way we measure our day. In former ages this influence was much more palpable: when the liturgical calendar exercised the imagination more than the secular, late August would be known as Bartholomew-tide (in honor of the St. Bartholomew's feast day, August 24) and an Indian summer would be called St. Martin's summer (warm weather around November 11, St. Martin's Day). Below are a few of the lingering ways in which Catholic Christianity continues to affect our perception of time.

B.C. and A.D. While the ancient Romans counted the passage of the years from the founding of their city (ab urbe condita, or A.U.C.) and while Jewish calendars begin with the creation of the world (anno mundi, or A.M.), it is the Christian chronology—the starting point of which is the birth of Jesus Christ—that has come to hold sway around the world. Several competing Christian timetables had been in use for a while when in the sixth century Pope John I commissioned a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus to provide a viable calendar for liturgical use. Synthesizing some of the existent calendars, Dionysius took as his terminus a quo the Incarnation of Our Lord, but he made one crucial error, calculating that Christ was born in the year 753 A.U.C. when in fact the latest he could have been born was 750 A.U.C. Several medieval scholars caught the mistake, but Dionysius' calendar endured nonetheless, leaving us with the anomaly that Christ was born three to six years "before Christ."

Regardless of the blunder, the idea of a "Christian era" appropriately reflects the Catholic sense that the advent of the God-man has ushered in a new dispensation of time. The terms B.C. ("Before Christ") and A.D. (anno Domini, or "year of the Lord") thus have a theological as well as a practical significance, though they are slowly being replaced in scholarly circles with B.C.E. and C.E., "Before the Common Era" and "Common Era," respectively. While these politically correct terms are somewhat overstated (the Christian era, for instance, is not held in common with traditional Chinese and Muslim cultures), it is interesting to note that the A.D. dating has never been the sole means of annual measuring in Christendom. Until the fourteenth century Spain retained a chronology that began with the Roman conquest of that land, while the Greek Orthodox world did not adapt Dionysius' chronology until the fifteenth century. Instead of the Era of the Incarnation, France in the eleventh century toyed with an Era of the Passion, which began around the year A.D. 33. Yet another convention accepted the Dionysian dating but used a different name. Instead of A.D., some old records show the abbreviation An. Sal. Rep.,Anno Salutis Reparatae, "in the year of salvation regained." To this day, An. Sal. Rep. occasionally makes a surprise appearance, as on a University of Notre Dame campus statue honoring its founder, Father Edward Sorin.

Calendar. Not just the counting of years but the reckoning of the year itself has been influenced by the Church. Since the first century B.C., the West had relied on the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar and devised by the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes. The calendar, however, was flawed, losing eleven minutes a year, and so after over fifteen hundred years of use, ten whole days had been "lost." To correct the error, Pope Gregory XIII ordered the calendar to be revised: ten days in 1582 were to be skipped (October 5 for that year would become October 15), and leap years were to occur only ninety seven times in four hundred years. Though the Gregorian calendar successfully brought a closer alignment of our marking of time to the actual solar year, it was initially resisted by Protestant and Eastern Orthodox countries. Britain, for example, did not adopt the calendar until 1752, while to this day several Eastern Orthodox communities reject it as a virtually heretical invention of the papacy.

Sunday and the Weekend. Taking Saturday and Sunday off from work is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the anchor of the weekend, Sunday, is a quintessentially Christian day that goes back to Apostolic times. In flagrant violation of Roman law (which forbade unauthorized religious assemblies), the first Christians gathered to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice early Sunday morning, the day on which Christ rose from the dead. As Pope Benedict XVI explains in one of his earlier writings, observing the Lord's Day even under threat of death was not for them "a case of choosing between one law andanother, but of choosing between the meaning that sustains life and a meaningless life." Given the paramount importance of the Lord's Day in Christian life and thought, it is not surprising that its observance even anticipated our modern weekend in some respects. As early as the fourth century, many masters would release their slaves from work on Saturday so that they could better prepare for Sunday, the day on which no distinction was made between free man and slave. (For more on the impact of Sunday, see here.)

The Eighth Day. Sunday, incidentally, is also sometimes called in early Christian literature the "eighth day" of the week, since Jesus Christ rose from the dead the day after the seventh day (Saturday, or the Sabbath). By counting the days in this way the Church Fathers did not wish to change the structure of the week but to highlight the mystical significance of the number eight in the Bible, which is used throughout to symbolize eternal life and resurrection, a new beginning and a consummated end. (St. Peter, for example, suggests that the eight souls who were saved in Noah's ark foreshadows Christian salvation in baptism (I Peter 3:20, 21)). The meaning of the number eight is manifested in Christian art and design in a number of ways, such as the octagonal shape of baptismal fonts in many traditional churches. It is also from this mystical reckoning of time that there come various expressions about an eight-day week such as the Beatles' song, "Eight Days a Week."

Clocks. Though various kinds of sundials, water clocks, and even rudimentary mechanical clocks existed long before the Middle Ages, the invention of the first successful mechanical pendulum clock is credited to the man who would become Pope Sylvester II. Gerbert of Aurillac (ca. 940–1003) was a talented scholar who studied mathematics and natural science under Arab teachers in Spain before ascending the See of Peter as the first French pontiff. In addition to inventing the clock, Gerbert is also said to have introduced the use of Arabic numbers into Europe.

Though it is difficult to say with certainty whether or not Pope Sylvester II invented the clock, it is relatively certain that the medieval development of timekeeping devices was prompted by the daily prayer of monastic life. Monks, nuns, and priests prayed the Divine Office eight times a day (see here), and clocks became instrumental in helping them keep that schedule, primarily by ringing a bell at the appointed hour. (Indeed, the oldest surviving clock in Great Britain has a bell with no hands at all.) Hence Dante, when describing the mellifluous praise that the holy teachers of the Church sing to God in heaven, writes that they are:

Like a clock that calls us at the hour
In which the Bride of God, on waking,
Sings Matins to her Bridegroom....
Chiming the sounds with notes so sweet that those
With spirit well-disposed feel their love grow.

The historic connection between bells for the Divine Office and chronometers has even given us our word "clock," which comes from the German glocke, or bell.



This is a holy day to the Lord our God: do not mourn, nor weep ... Go, eat fat meats, and drink sweet wine, and send portions to them that have not prepared for themselves: because it is the holy day of the Lord, and be not sad: for the joy of the Lord is our strength.

—Nehemiah 8:9, 10

Holidays are solemn and public reminders of important truths, virtues, or events that inspire and define a church, people, or polity. Yet as the prophet Nehemiah proclaimed, holidays also bring joy to the heart, punctuating as they do the monotony of time. (St. Augustine, the great Church Father writing in the fifth century, was quite frank about the purpose of holidays, speculating that God and the Church instituted different feasts to relieve man's boredom.) Though keeping annual holidays is a custom that long predates Christianity, our current list of American civic holidays remains influenced by the Catholic liturgical year, down to the word we still use (holiday obviously being a contraction of "holy day"). And other forms of public merriment betray a Catholic note of celebration as well: the word fair is derived from the ecclesiastical Latin, feria, a generic weekday feast, while the word carnival, as we shall see below, comes from Catholic pre-Lenten festivities.

In some respects this enduring influence is surprising, given historic anti-Catholic sentiment in some English and American circles. Guy Fawkes Day on November 5, for example, commemorates a failed plot by several English Catholics to blow up Parliament in 1605. After the plot was foiled, the British government declared November 5 "a holiday for ever in ... detestation of the Papists." The anniversary, despite George Washington's admonitions, continued to be celebrated in some parts of the United States (where it was known as "Pope's Day") into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nevertheless, several Catholic customs survived in muted form or were transplanted by later waves of immigration, and so it is those secular holidays that can claim some Catholic derivation, which we present below. Before we do so, however, we will take a quick look at two examples of how the season of Lent has impacted our vocabulary.


First the Carnival ... Today the word carnival evokes images of amusement parks, Ferris wheels, and side shows, but it originally referred to a much more religiously centered time of feasting and merrymaking. Prior to the season of Lent (and prior to the age of refrigeration), Christians would slowly begin to abstain from the cheese, dairy, and meat products that they would be giving up completely during the "Great Fast." This voluntary period of fasting, known as pre-Lent, began in the Roman Catholic calendar three Sundays before Ash Wednesday and would culminate around the Sunday before Lent (Quinquagesima Sunday) with abstinence from meat. Quinquagesima Sunday was thus called Dominica Carnevala, carnevala coming from the Latin for "removal" (levare) of "meat" (caro/carnis), though many would instead come to think of the term as a saying goodbye (vale) to meat (carne). Of course, this farewell party need not be gloomy, and so the voluntary process of pious asceticism also gave rise, ironically, to the pre-Lenten excesses and glittering pageantry we associate with Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the carnevales in Brazil and Venice, Italy.

... Then the Quarantine. The holy season of Lent, incidentally, began in part as a time of atonement for public penitents, persons who had committed notorious and scandalous sins and were thus formally required by the Church to do public acts of penance. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, the penitents could not bathe, shave, wear shoes, talk to others, remain with their families, or sleep on a comfortable mattress, nor were they allowed to receive any of the sacraments until they were formally absolved of their sins on Holy Thursday by the bishop and allowed to return to their normal lives. This period of exclusion, because it roughly lasted forty days, was called a quarantine (from the medieval Latin quarentena), a term eventually extended by physicians to include the controlled isolation of those whose infirmities had more to do with the body than with the soul. The term quarantine was first used in its current medical sense in Venice during the Plague.


Groundhog Day, February 2. February 2 in the Roman Catholic calendar is "Candlemas," the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which commemorates Mary's solemn presentation of her Son in the Holy Temple forty days after his birth. It was on this occasion that the aged prophet Simeon took the infant Jesus in his hands and declared him to be a "light for the revelation of the gentiles" (Luke 2:32). Simeon's prophecy and the focus on light eventually led to a folk belief that the weather on February 2 had a particularly keen prognostic value. If the sun shone for the greater part of the day, there would be, it was claimed, forty more days of winter, but if the skies were cloudy and gray, there would be an early spring. The Germans amended this lore by bringing into the equation either the badger or the hedgehog (not to mention their shadows); yet when they emigrated to Pennsylvania in colonial times, they could find no such creatures around. Instead they saw plenty of what the Native Americans in the area called a wojak, or woodchuck. Since the Indians considered the groundhog to be a wise animal, it seemed only natural to appoint the furry fellow—as Phil the Groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is now called—"Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary."

St. Valentine's Day, February 14. This popular holiday for lovers and sweethearts takes its name from St. Valentine, a Catholic priest who was martyred on February 14, 270, in the persecution of Emperor Claudius II. The anniversary of a celibate saint's violent death may seem an odd occasion for the amorous selection of a mate, so it may not come as a surprise to learn that the association is more coincidental than historical. In pagan Rome, February 15 was the feast of the Lupercalia in honor of the pastoral god Lupercus. The night before the feast, young people used to declare their love for each other or propose marriage. They also used to pledge their companionship and affection to a prospective spouse for the next twelve months with a view toward marriage. (From this custom comes the original meaning of being someone's "Valentine.") Medieval authors "baptized" this pagan observance by telling stories about Father Valentine as a matchmaker for Christian couples. According to one of these stories, the custom of sending cards on Valentine's Day hearkens back to a note that Valentine wrote to his jailer's daughter (whom he had miraculously cured of blindness) shortly before his execution, a note that he signed with the words, "Your Valentine."

Easter Sunday. Easter is the great celebration of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and it remains a deeply religious holiday. On this note it is interesting to observe that even the secular customs associated with the day have their origins in Catholic devotional practice. While antedating Christianity as a spring symbol of new life, the egg took on new meaning as a token of Christ's resurrection from the hard shell of his stone tomb (eggs were also savored during Eastertide because the traditional Lenten fast prohibited their consumption). The wearing of new Easter clothes stems from the ancient practice of newly baptized Christians wearing a white garment from the moment of their baptism during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday until the following Sunday eight days later. After a while, even the faithful who were not neophytes adopted the custom by wearing something new to symbolize the new life brought by the death and resurrection of Christ. Hence an old Irish saying: "For Christmas, food and drink; for Easter, new clothes."

It was also customary in some areas for the faithful, bedecked in their Easter finery, to take part in a religious procession after the Easter morning Mass. A crucifix or the Paschal candle would often lead the way, and while the entourage would make several stops in order to pray or sing hymns, a good part of the time would be spent in light banter. This Easter walk was secularized after the Reformation and survives today as the Easter Parade, the extravagant spectacle that takes place on New York's City Fifth Avenue and in other areas of the country every year.


Excerpted from Why Do Catholics Eat Fish On Friday? by Michael P. Foley. Copyright © 2005 Michael P. Foley. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael P. Foley is the author of Wedding Rites: The Complete Guide to Traditional Weddings. He is a professor at Baylor University.

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